Less than a week into their Sheffield United careers and Panagiotis Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic – Panos and Rich – already look settled in.
The South African-born Greek and the Dutchman speak brilliant English, and have found a dressing room which has welcomed them with open arms.
Even the Blades’ unusual style of play holds no fears for Retsos, who already feels comfortable if asked to be one of manager Chris Wilder’s famous overlapping centre-backs.
As a fan of Match of the Day and a friend to a number of his compatriots already here, the Premier League is fairly familiar to centre-forward Zivkovic. “The best league in the world,” his new team-mate calls it.
The biggest test is still to come, however. Club record signing Sander Berge looked the part in the first half of his debut at Crystal Palace last week, but Wilder still chuckles at the worn-out and slightly bewildered expression on the £22m midfielder’s face as he trudged off the Selhurst Park pitch midway through the second half, his energy spent after 68 minutes of the sort of harum-scarum football that is par for the course in England, but unusual further afield. Loan signings Retsos and Zivkovic were unavailable in South London, registered too late on deadline day to feature, but will come into consideration for tomorrow’s visit of Bournemouth after a good week on the Shirecliffe training pitches.
“They’re up to speed and ready,” declares Wilder. “I’ve been delighted with the shape of all three. They go through rigorous tests and medicals, a test they all do, and they are all in good nick, really good athletes.
“Rich has not played much football since the end of the Chinese season (in November) but he’s had a mini pre-season. Panos has been on the bench in the Champions League and from Sander’s point of view, even though his face was quite funny after 25 minutes (at Palace) – he was quite shocked by the tempo – he enjoyed it and he’ll get up to speed as well. All three are pushing to be involved on Sunday.”
Retsos and Zivkovic arrive with points to prove, but also the incentive that their loans contain an option for the Blades to sign them permanently in the summer.
Retsos joins from Bayer Leverkusen, Zivkovic from Changchun Yatai. The former’s career has been held back by serious injuries to both thighs, the latter headed to the Far East after a move to Ajax failed to live up to the promise of a debut goal. At 21 and 23 respectively, time is on their side, but like most Wilder signings, they arrive with a point to prove.
“There’s always something in a player’s history that they’re trying to prove,” shrugs Wilder, “and the best players are the ones who keep driving forward for the next contract or silverware or result, I think that’s in your make-up.
“They’ve done well in their careers so far but they want to be a success in the Premier League and that bodes well for us as a club.”
Retsos has come to Sheffield to forget his past.
“Last year was a bad year for me with many injuries, I want to forget that and leave it in the past,” he says. “This was a great move on a six-month loan and we’ll see how it goes.
“Injuries are a part of football, there were sad moments, but what’s important is how you handle it, you must be stronger than ever to come back fighting.”
Zivkovic scored 15 goals in 25 appearances for Changchun, where he replaced Manchester United’s January loan signing Odion Ighalo. He knows this is a step up.
“It helps to score goals but it’s a different level and a different competition,” he says. “It helped that the guys were amazing and that we (Zivkovic and Retsos) arrived at the same time.
“The main thing is the physical part and the conditioning of the body.
“I see this as my long-term home for sure because as a kid I watched Match of the Day with my father, so to play in the Premier League is a dream for me. I’m happy to be a part of it and I’m not planning to leave.
“In China the culture was different, the people are different, the football is different. Football isn’t the main thing. There are a lot of people and the stadiums are sometimes not full or empty. I missed the feeling of football being everything.
“Here, it is, people recognise you here and that didn’t happen in China.
“It was a good experience but I’m glad this chance came up, I’m happy to be here and not in China!”
The Bramall Lane tactics may not be identical to those at the Bayer Arena, but Retsos says the mindset pretty much is.
“It’s similar to playing at Bayer under the coach there (Peter Bosz),” he argues, “attacking football, get the ball forward.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easy to adjust because it’s a different tempo but in terms of style, it’s quite similar.
“The dressing room really surprised me from the first minute, there’s something really unique and they show it out on the field as well. That’s made it easier to acclimatise.
“The Premier League is the best league in the world so I would love to stay here for many years. Football isn’t big in South Africa, but it’s huge in Greece and every day when we wake up we think about football.
“Like Olympiacos (his first club, who he captained to the Greek title at the age of 18), Sheffield United are also a big club with a big history.
“It’s their first year in the Premier League for many years (12) so there’s a big opportunity for the club. Wherever I’ve played we’ve qualified for Europe so hopefully with Sheffield United I can also make that happen.”